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Thrills, Spills And Billycarts - With Not A Helicopter Parent In Sight


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Thrills, spills and billycarts - with not a helicopter parent in sight



May 22, 2010
Last Sunday I saw the best thing ever. It was in a little town on the north coast of NSW. The main street had been closed to traffic and detours set in place. The footpaths were lined with mums and farmers, kids and hippies, members of the local Sikh community and a Scottish pipe band.

Everyone had come out to watch the Bangalow Billycart Derby, an event which should be a beacon for anyone who fears that old fashioned risky fun for kids is no longer possible because of anxious parenting and public liability insurance. All morning and into the afternoon, through the heats and the semis and the finals, kids and adults hurtled down the sloping main street which was lined with bales of hay to protect the crowd. Some carts were made from scraps of wood and old pram wheels, and there were sleeker models made of metal shaped into something vaguely aerodynamic.

Some had teddy bears and fluffy mascots strapped to them, others went for the racing car look. Particularly popular was the driving seat constructed of a plastic chair with its legs wrenched off.

Every kind of billycart imaginable was represented among the 252 entries, a race record, up from 100 entries when the derby began 15 years ago.

The thing about the billycart derby is that it is not watered down, rubber matted, cotton wool wrapped entertainment. It looks genuinely bloody dangerous. During one race a heavy cart flipped at the bottom of the hill, trapping its young driver underneath. A hush came over the crowd, and then the chatting started up again as the vehicle was lifted from him and he seemed to be, well, pretty much fine.

So how do they get away with it? Race starter Peta Heeson, who organises the derby with her husband Tony, a councillor and macadamia farmer, says the race has only been cancelled once because of the costs of insurance. They have never had legal problems. "There have on occasion been some crashes, but nothing serious. Some of the more entertaining entries have been a fridge, which was loaded with cartons of beer in the front," she says.

There are rules of course. That fridge loaded with beer led to rules about maximum weight. Helmets are compulsory although judging from what I saw on the day, bicycle stack hats are considered enough. And brakes. You have to have those. Although the race caller noted that one of the racers seemed to have brakes of the "Fred Flintstone" variety - that is, his feet.

Then there are rules which relate to fair conduct; things to keep in mind if you are thinking of building a cart and entering next year. All carts must "commence from a standing start" and "proceed under their own weight". Rocking is allowed but "no pedalling, pushing, paddling or propulsion of any kind", otherwise it just wouldn't be a proper billycart derby.

As I watched the festivities I thought of the return to Sydney Harbour of Jessica Watson the day before. The excitement that greeted her arrival, the numbers of parents who dragged kids to the harbour to see it, seems to be further evidence, not only of the power of good media management, but also of the renewed interest in the ideals of adventure and risk in childhood.

Of course few parents would want their children to go the Full Watson and risk death at sea, but there are plenty who understand the value of engaging in the kind of high jinks which result in a mighty wallop or the occasional bruise.

There seems to be a hunger for a return to the days before helicopter parenting, in which parents hover over their precious children, protecting them from superficial injuries and slights while destroying something much more precious, their sense of confidence and independence.

This push back has been coming for some time. It is also evident in the phenomenal popularity of the book The Dangerous Book for Boys (and later The Daring Book for Girls) which became a best seller in 2006 with its advice about how to make the perfect water bomb, read codes and build a tree house.

The Bangalow Billycart Derby is a reminder that this kind of childhood is still possible. It would be great if there were more of it and our society moved away from the extremes of helicopter parenting and towards something we might call billycart parenting.
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